Ad-tech is a wonderful thing, no doubt about it. Programmatic, big data, neuroeconomics, mobile ad distribution – they all sound terribly promising. No wonder creative and media agencies alike are investing heavily in understanding the opportunities: you can target buyers at the time of decision, make sales while the audience are having dinner, doing their laundry or even about to buy a competitor’s product. Rumour has it that Boeing received an order for a 787-8 Dreamliner via smartphone from an executive lying in bed. That’s a £280 million click.
Exciting as this all is, it raises some pretty thorny questions around how media and creative bods are going to tackle the opportunities together. And VCCP’s recent acquisition of Adconnection brings the issue of reunification into even sharper focus.
But as the Christmas spots line up one by one on primetime TV, you would be forgiven for thinking that not much has changed in the past 20 years – despite the revolution in the media and creative landscapes. You would also be forgiven for thinking "it’s the creative wot won it" given the small amount of attention devoted to the importance of how channel choices and creative media knit together. And, worse, paying no attention at all to how both of these can impact the business as a seamless extension of the customer experience.
Having a unified mentality across brand, media and execution has become an important competitive advantage. So why is reunification looking so weak? Taking a cold read on the Christmas campaigns highlights why.
First, timing. It is now standard practice to go early and large format. This is incongruous with the actual sales cycle, which now sees two potential peaks across Black Friday and in the last few days before Christmas.
Second, it now seems in vogue to place some form of charity activation at a campaign’s heart. We forget that "purpose" without purpose is ironic, to say the least. In any case, the gap between advertising and the "last mile", "three metres" or "thumb tap" has always been evident, so it’s important to have some form of mechanism to close this.
Then, there is something strange in the air whereby we now think you have to merchandise the creative rather than sell the product – telescopes and furry cats for a tenner, anyone? Or, if you are feeling particularly mobile, create an app about your ad. But will an app about your ad really help shift your bread-and-butter product? The jury is still out.
Last, we invest in hashtags to tease out and "amplify" conversation. Clearly, telling people what to say about a brand is a lot safer than letting them say it. Whether it works is a secondary consideration.
It’s not difficult to spot that this approach begins with the creative idea and demands that media is a slave to it, while limiting a natural extension into the brand experience. When ideas are that good, the media should be too. It’s the creation of large-scale creative "wrappers", based on the timeless tenet of fame = brand salience = sales. There are plenty of IPA papers to back it up. But it smacks of campaigns competing with their own self-created model. It’s marketing as investment, putting steroid injections into advertising talkability.
Outside Christmas, the main barrier to the reunification of media and creative seems to be that, on encountering the deep expertise of the other’s discipline, we tend to get terribly confused. Does channel selection dictate creative development? Or is brand and media thinking somehow detached from all executional considerations? We get caught up in the mechanics of integration without even passing wind in the general direction of effectiveness.
One easy mistake to correct: if you’re a creative agency, you’re not Pixar and never will be. The job of media integration isn’t to populate every child’s bedroom and smartphone with extensions of your creative. Apps, sticker books, trading cards, fluffy toys – let’s take over the world, guys. Or did we forget that we’re in advertising? We’re here to sell other people’s products, not fill the world with more shit people don’t need.
Creative megalomania aside, the other media integration model looks like a giant game of whack-a-mole. A new channel opportunity pops up every two seconds and we feel we have to hit it hard with bespoke creative or get left behind. But that isn’t the answer either.
So how do we get media and creative back working together? Perhaps merge a messaging app, a tabloid and a media conglomerate into a company called Squirrel Nuts? Or simply buy up the necessary businesses and squash them together like different colours of Play-Doh, hoping to make sky-blue-pink?
Or maybe – just maybe – we start with the thing that enabled creative, media and clients to play nicely since the beginning of advertising: shared culture, vision and values – things that "eat strategy for breakfast", to co-opt one famous quote. Beyond the structures and processes, you need people who get it and get on. You’ll know when it’s right because you’ll scream out: "This is how it should be." And, more importantly, so will the audience.
Our belief is that the secret is in separate ownership and, with that, maturity and respect. Decoupling doesn’t mean things have to be decoupled. Separate books are important. It means creative and media care equally about the end product and won’t be a slave to the other. We both know a good idea when we see one and get behind each other to support it. It’s not really about a lead agency – the best idea wins. Someone makes it and someone buys it.
Separate ownership ensures the passion and ambition to do the best for our brands and their businesses. Yes, you will get friction. But in that friction, you also get greatness.
Jonathan Trimble is the chief executive of 18 Feet & Rising; Andrew Stephens is the co-founder of Goodstuff Communications